By that time the Cherokee occupied only a small portion of their former domain in southeastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, northwestern Georgia, and northeastern Alabama. As their territory had shrunk in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many Cherokee had chosen to remove voluntarily. Small groups began to migrate to what is now Arkansas in the 1790s, and larger groups moved and formed the Western Cherokee Nation following the treaties of 1817 and 1819.
During the 1820s the Cherokee Nation mounted an effort to establish their sovereignty, which provided their right to remain, and at the same time demonstrated their "civilization," in other words, evidence of their ability to survive in the East. They had written laws for years, and in 1827, they wrote a constitution, under which they passed laws forbidding the sale of Cherokee land, revoking citizenship of those who voluntarily removed, and securing private property. Many Cherokee invested in slaves and adopted a for-profit agricultural economy. Fortuitously for the Nation, Sequoyah had perfected his syllabary early in the decade, and in 1828, the Cherokee Nation began publishing the Cherokee Phoenix, touting Cherokee "civilization" and opposing Georgia's actions and the push for removal. Finally, John Ross, the first principal chief elected under the new constitution, would provide leadership opposing removal during the following decade.
Angered in general by Cherokee resistance to removal and in particular by the Cherokee constitution, Georgians responded by exercising what they determined were their rights to control the inhabitants within their borders. The election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 boosted Georgians' hopes, especially when he spoke out in favor of Indian removal and showed no inclination to defend Cherokee rights. Later that year, the Georgia legislature passed a law extending the state's jurisdiction over Cherokee lands, to become effective in June 1830. The Indian Removal Act (1830) in May further emboldened the Georgians, and late that year they outlawed the Cherokee government, requiring whites living in the Cherokee Nation to obtain permits from Georgia. Additionally, they established a unit called the Georgia Guard to enforce the Georgia laws. In 1830, Georgia conducted a survey of Cherokee lands and claimed authority over gold mining in the Cherokee country, denying the Cherokee the right to mine their own gold.
The Cherokee Nation and others challenged these actions in two historic Supreme Court cases. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the Court avoided the constitutional question of Georgia's jurisdiction over the Cherokee, saying the Cherokee Nation could not sue for relief in the Supreme Court because it was not a foreign power, according to the Constitution, calling the Cherokee a "domestic dependent nation." In Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Court heard the case of Samuel Worcester, and others arrested by Georgia, because they were American citizens. Although the Court was split, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that Georgia had no legal jurisdiction over the Cherokee Nation.
Georgians ignored Marshall's ruling, and President Jackson supported them by inaction. They opened Cherokee lands to American settlement by lottery. In 1833, Georgia began confiscating Cherokee reservations belonging to the Nation under the treaties of 1817 and 1819, including that of Chief Ross. American intruders entered the Cherokee Nation, rousted Cherokee from their homes, and stole property.
The Cherokee moved their council to Red Clay, Tennessee, and during the early 1830s continued their opposition to Georgia's actions. Delegations frequently went to Washington to plead the Nation's case. In time, the Cherokee leadership began to split over the question of removal, with sympathy growing for removal. In June 1834, the United States negotiated a removal treaty with the Cherokee delegation, but it was repudiated by the Cherokee council. In early 1835, rival delegations of Ross's National Party and the Ridge or Treaty Party went to Washington. John F. Schermerhorn negotiated a treaty with the Treaty Party delegation, but the Cherokee council rejected it that fall.
The Cherokee were then directed to meet in December at New Echota, where Schermerhorn and William Carroll drafted the Treaty of New Echota (1835), and the Treaty Party Cherokee signed it. Ross Party adherents boycotted the meeting even though Schermerhorn had warned them that absence would be interpreted as tacit agreement, and the small number of Treaty Party followers who signed thus committed the entire Nation to removal. Although approximately 16,000 Cherokee called the treaty fraudulent, the U.S. government called it valid and gave the Cherokee little more than two years to remove.
By the time the Treaty of New Echota was signed, many Cherokee had begun removing west. Following passage of the Indian Removal Act in May, small groups began to remove to join the Western Cherokee, who, under the Treaty of 1828, had given up their Arkansas lands and removed to Indian Territory. About 400 reached the West in January 1830. In March, 70 to 80 more arrived, followed by about 80 in April. They were all destitute, with little means to sustain themselves.
The federal government and Georgia combined efforts to force even larger numbers to remove. Jackson stopped the enrollment of small parties. In 1831, Georgians began to use the state law forbidding Cherokee to testify in court as a way to extort and steal Cherokee property. Some Cherokee removed to Alabama and Tennessee to escape persecution.
Despite these actions, the government was unsuccessful in enrolling large groups for removal. Some Cherokee who had removed came back to the old Nation with bad reports about the country in the American West. The Cherokee majority resisted removal, and some intimidated those who agreed to leave. Agent Benjamin Currey worked hard to enroll the Cherokee, but Gov. George Gilmer of Georgia had selected most of Currey's assistants, whom the Cherokee did not trust. By the end of 1831, Currey had enrolled only 366 people. Those Currey had enrolled remained in squalid camps for months, awaiting transportation.
By April 1832, only 380, primarily from Georgia, were ready to go, including 108 blacks and 40 whites. On April 10, they started on flatboats down the Tennessee River to Waterloo, Alabama. From there they traveled by steamboat down the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers and up the Arkansas River to the Cherokee Agency above Fort Smith. Like those who had arrived earlier, they were destitute. The Cherokee agent issued rations to the Cherokee but denied subsistence to the slaves and the intermarried whites. The government later ruled that the slaves and whites belonging to the Cherokee should receive rations equal to those issued to the Cherokee.
The next major removal party of more than 450 left in March 1834, led by Lt. Joseph W. Harris. Made up primarily of Cherokee from the Valley Towns and from towns along the Hiwassee and Tennessee, they traveled by flatboats down the Tennessee and then transferred to a steamboat towing three flatboats, arriving at Little Rock on April 6. By then, measles had broken out, and the number of cases was growing. Water in the Arkansas was low, and the group was forced to stop at Cadron and go into camp. Cholera struck the group, a number died within 24 hours, and the outbreak raged for days. The party had to go overland the remainder of the journey, many barefoot. Their horses and other property were stolen by Arkansans. Before they reached their final destination at Dwight Mission, Cherokee Nation, in May, more had died. Of the 81 who had died since they left the Tennessee River, 45 were children under 10 years old, who succumbed primarily to measles. Of those who survived the journey, nearly half died within the next year.
In normal times of debate, this ill-fated party would have provided strong arguments in opposition to removal. However, by the time Harris's party reached the West, the Cherokee leaders in the East were deeply divided and antagonistic to each other, an antagonism that led to the fraudulent Treaty of New Echota. After the treaty and before the two-year deadline, large numbers, primarily Treaty Party followers, went west by steamboat or traveled overland. However, they delayed departing as long as possible.
It was not until early 1837 that a group of Treaty Party followers, including most of the Ridges and Waties, removed west under Dr. John S. Young. The group's movements were chronicled by the attending physician, Dr. Clark Lillybridge. Some 466 strong, the group left Ross's Landing, Tennessee, in March on flatboats and descended the Tennessee to Gunter's Landing. They were towed from there by a steamboat to Decatur, Alabama, where they were put aboard railroad cars, which took them to Tuscumbia. There they boarded a steamboat towing two keelboats, which took them down Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas. They arrived at Little Rock on March 21, having been plagued by whiskey sellers and illnesses of all sorts along the way. They arrived at Fort Coffee in the Indian Territory on March 28.
A second group of Treaty Party adherents left the Cherokee Agency in Tennessee in October 1837. Consisting of 365 Cherokee led by B. B. Cannon, the party took an overland route through McMinnville, Murfreesboro, and Nashville, Tennessee, and Hopkinsville, Princeton, and Salem, Kentucky, crossing the Ohio at Golconda, Illinois. From Golconda, they crossed southern Illinois, ferrying across the Mississippi near Cape Girardeau, Missouri. From Jackson, Missouri, they traveled west to Waynesville, then southwest to Springfield, and on to the Arkansas line north of Fayetteville. From there they traveled to Fayetteville and west to the Cherokee Nation. Cannon's diary records illnesses, cold temperatures, and bad roads endured by the people, and it also chronicles the death and burial of a number of the party. They arrived in late December.
The next group to remove west was a party of 250 conducted by Lt. Edward Deas. They left Waterloo, Alabama, on April 6, 1838, by steamboat and traveled down the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi to the Arkansas River. They reached Little Rock on April 11, but from that point on were slowed down by low water. They finally were forced to disembark at McLean's Landing and continue overland, reaching their final destination on May 1.
When the deadline for voluntary removal came in May, an estimated 14,000 Cherokee remained in the East. Jackson ordered the U.S. Army to remove the Cherokee by force, if necessary. Because of a troop shortage, Gen. Winfield Scott's regulars were delayed in arriving in the Cherokee Nation. Scott ordered the Cherokee to assemble for removal and ordered the state militias under his command to carry out his edict. Militias from the four states began to arrest Cherokee in the late spring of 1838. The soldiers spread out through the country, forcing Cherokee from their homes and marching them to holding camps in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama in preparation for departure. Wealthy Cherokee, especially slaveholders, were exempt from the arrests. Throughout the summer, the less fortunate Cherokee suffered in the sweltering heat in the overcrowded camps, which were unsanitary and disease-ridden. Death from disease and violence was common.
Deas conducted the first party of Cherokee to remove after the deadline for voluntary removal had passed. He left Ross's Landing on June 6, 1838 with about 650 people, primarily poorer Cherokee who had been rousted from their homes in Georgia. They had few personal possessions and were poorly clothed, so Deas had to purchase clothing for them. They were forced aboard a steamboat and six keelboats by guards posted to keep them from escaping. At Decatur, they took the rail cars to Tuscumbia, where they were put aboard a steamboat. By that time, a large number had escaped; Deas counted only 489 present. They arrived opposite Fort Coffee on June 23.
The next party, consisting of about 875, was directed by Lt. R. H. K. Whiteley. They started from Ross's Landing on June 12 aboard flatboats and went down the Tennessee to Waterloo, where they boarded a steamboat. By that time, nearly 100 had escaped. Whiteley could not enroll them because the Cherokee would not give their names. They also refused the clothing he bought for them. The party stopped at Little Rock on July 6, when Whiteley forced the Cherokee to walk a gangplank from the boat to the shore opposite Little Rock to count them; there were 722. At Lewisburg, Arkansas, the people were put ashore and began their overland trek to the Cherokee Nation, arriving about August 1.
Difficulty with water levels resulted from a drought that gripped the South. The government's plan was to remove the Cherokee on steamboats, as Deas and Whiteley had done, but low water and illness caused the plan to fall apart. In July, Ross and other Cherokee leaders persuaded the War Department to allow the Cherokee to postpone removal until the fall and to permit the Cherokee government to conduct the removal.
By that time, however, another party had been organized under the direction of Capt. G. S. Drane. They started overland from Ross's Landing on June 25, numbering 1,072. At Bellefont, Alabama, word came that the removal had been delayed until fall, and the Cherokee began to escape. Drane called out a local militia unit to escort them and prevent further escapes, but about 225 escaped. At Waterloo, the party boarded a steamboat that took them to within 30 miles of Little Rock. From there, their journey was difficult because of low water, and they did not reach the Cherokee Nation until September 4, 1838. Along the way, 293 escaped and 141 died.
By fall, separated from their homes and bereft of their property, those still to be removed—the vast majority of the Nation—were less rebellious than the spring removal parties had been. A contingent left the East in early October headed by John A. Bell, a Treaty Party leader who refused to remove under Ross. With Deas as the official overseeing their removal, this group traveled through southern Tennessee to Memphis. Their plan was to go the rest of the way by boat, but on learning that the Mississippi Swamp was passable, they traveled overland to Little Rock. Illness and death slowed their movement so that they did not reach Little Rock until early December. From there, they followed the Military Road to Indian Territory, arriving in early January 1839.
The Cherokee government organized the nearly 13,000 remaining Cherokee into 12 detachments that would travel overland. They were led by Elijah Hicks, Daniel Colston, John Benge, Jesse Bushyhead, Situwakee, Old Fields, Moses Daniel, Chuwalookee, James Brown, Richard Taylor, George Hicks, and Peter Hildebrand, with assistant conductors, wagon masters, teamsters, physicians, and other necessary employees. The Cherokee Nation awarded a contract to the chief's brother, Lewis Ross, for supplying the people and animals with rations along the route. The detachments took up the march, one after the other, during October and November 1838. All but one group followed the route the Cannon party had taken in 1837. By the time they reached the Mississippi River in southern Illinois, winter had set in; they were held up by cold weather and ice floating in the river, which made the crossing dangerous. Once across the river, they followed the Cannon route to Springfield, Missouri, except for the Hildebrand contingent, which took an alternate route through part of central Missouri.
The Benge contingent started from Fort Payne, Alabama, in October, taking a different route from the others. They traveled to Gunter's Landing and Huntsville and then to Columbia, Tennessee, where they turned west-northwest into western Kentucky, and crossed the Mississippi at Iron Banks. From the Mississippi, they turned north to Jackson, Missouri, and then south along the old Southwest Trail and into Arkansas northwest of Batesville. From there, they continued on the north side of the White River, through the Ozarks to present-day Gassville, where they crossed and traveled southwest to Fayetteville and then west to the Cherokee Nation.
The last major party of Cherokee to leave the old Nation was led by John Drew and included Ross and his family. They left the Cherokee Agency in Tennessee on December 5, 1838, aboard four flatboats. They floated down the Hiwassee and the Tennessee to Muscle Shoals, where they took the newly constructed canal around the shoals and stopped in Tuscumbia. There Ross bought the steamboat Victoria, which took them to the mouth of the Illinois River in the Western Cherokee Nation. The journey was halted at Cairo, Illinois; here, Ross left the boat and crossed in Illinois to the Mississippi River, where the overland contingents had been held up for some time by ice. Some of the teamsters in one contingent were on the point of rebellion. Ross resolved the issue and rejoined his family at Cairo. Quatie, Ross's wife, was desperately ill at the time. Her condition worsened as they continued, and she died aboard the Victoria shortly before the party reached Little Rock, where she was buried in the city's cemetery. Ross arrived in the West in February 1839.
The land contingents continued to arrive as late as early March 1839. Cherokee removal, which had gone on for more than 20 years, was officially over, although small groups continued to make their way to the West for years to come. In the early 20th century, the Cherokee began to refer to the ordeal of removal as the "Trail of Tears."
Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr.
Satz, Ronald N. American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975; Foreman, Grant. Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989; Anderson, William L., ed. Cherokee Removal Before and After. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991; Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr. The John Drew Detachment. Resources on Indian Removal No. 2. Little Rock, AR: Sequoyah National Research Center, 2006; McLoughlin, William G. Champions of the Cherokees: Evan and John B. Jones. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990; Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green, ed. The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1995; Sturgis, Amy H. The Trail of Tears and Indian Removal. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.